Book Spotlight: The Bear and The Nightingale

I remember vividly when I was little waking up before the sun was fully in the sky and my parents not even being awake yet and pulling out a book to read while in bed. There were weekends that you sometimes didn’t see me until the sun had gone to sleep already unless you came to my room. Reading was a huge part of my childhood because I gobbled books up left and right. My room at my dad’s has a bookshelf stuffed to the brim with books and yet there are still boxes of them on the floor and little hanging shelves and crammed into every nook and cranny I could find. One Easter I got The Mists of Avalon and went to my room and finished the entire thing that weekend (p.s. if you haven’t seen this book it is HUGE and is tiny print). Fast-forward to my early adult years and I still crave every book I see and touch, it’s just harder it seems to find the time. 

My apartment is still covered in books though. I pulled a Rory Gilmore and have a large container under my bed filled with them (and it is a really heavy container to pick up), I have my living room console packed with books and they pop out of different corners that I may have forgotten I placed them in. The best part of being quarantined was being given the time to read again. 

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on

Reading allows me to escape my world, travel to continents I may never see in my lifetime, and learn about cultures and topics I was never introduced to in school. I have attended Hogwarts (like many of us), went back in time to find love amongst the Bennett sisters, and even sailed aboard a raunchy pirate ship. I have learned about the Salem Witch Trials and learned about the domovoi protecting households. I have learned that love knows no shape or color (or orientation!) And I have craved every minute of seeing who the female heroine ends up with. 

I clearly cannot say enough about reading and what literature has done for my life. Because of novels, I have written my own stories, even if they are just for entertaining myself and explored a career in print journalism. My love of writing has taken me to start this blog and several previous ones and even interned for several local ones back in the day. My knowledge has expanded and I feel more open to topics that most may be nervous to discuss. I can switch my level of speaking depending on the group I am in and have wowed my own English teachers with how well I write. This is all thanks to books. 

Since quarantine has given me the gift of time I’d love to give you all the gift of recommendations! My first one is a book I just recently finished but had in my purse since before we even knew about COVID-19. 

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden encompasses fiction, fantasy, history, and culture all between two covers. She is the one who introduced me to Slavic folklore such as the domovoi and the rusalka and allowed me into a world of snow and ice that didn’t equal death (all the time). This story follows a family tucked away in what is now Russia, on the outskirts of civilization just living their life, but the secret here is that the father of the family, Pyotr, married the daughter of the High Prince, who’s mother had a gift. They were madly in love and had five children, but the last is whom this story is about. Vasilisa Petrovna came into the world as her mother left it but her mother knew she would be special because she would carry the gift. This poor girl is not the most normal-looking of children nor does she act like most back then. She is wild and independent, runs and climbs trees with her brothers, and freely enters the woods with little fear. Her people, because her father was the lord of their land, are scared of her and call her witch and it only gets worse as she gets older. 

Her father travels to Moscow to find a wife and ends up with another High Prince’s daughter, only this one is not so loving and kind. Anna Ivanovna has her issues let me tell you and took a 180 in my opinion because I would have thought she’d be kind and understanding with Vasya but she’s evil and a bitch. She hates her new stepdaughter and condemns her every move. She thinks her daughter, who is kind to all, extensively prettier and worthy of all the world where Vasya deserves little more than dirt. I have come to hate this lady and yet pity her because she did not know how to use her sight; see she too has a gift, the gift to see what most humans cannot just like Vasya. But unlike Vasya, she is terrified and believes they are devils. When a new, egotistical, and vain priest comes to town she falls all over him. 

Illustration of a rusalka by Ivan Bilibin (thanks to Wiki)

Father Konstantin Nikonovich believes himself to be the closest person to God, and a gift to the world. He is renowned for his paintings of religious figures and is fawned over left and right. People worship him and he soaks up every second. When he is essentially banished to the little land far away from all the riches of Moscow he takes advantage of the humble way of life that is lived out there. He turns the inhabitants against their old traditions of honoring their house spirits and the spirits of the land and teach them that God is the only one. But he’s not teaching them the kind, loving God that (most) Christians believe in today; he is teaching them that God is wrathful and will punish them for their old traditions and that they must turn to him and plead for forgiveness. Well, Vasya won’t have it; the village lived in peace up until this priest came to town following the Christian religion and honoring the old ways and she sees what his teachings are doing to her people. They turn on each other and become terrified of anything outside of God. The domovois and other spirits grow weak and their protection over the village weakens as well. Once enough of them turn from the old ways the Bear awakens… 

I’ll try not to give any more spoilers than I already have. If you hate me for what I told you already I’ll apologize now but this novel is stupendous. If you love fantasy and tradition this story is for you. The best part is that several books follow and I am currently downing the second book by Arden. 

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